Artisan // 1990 // 108 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // September 7th, 2000
Not everyone who runs a city is elected.
From China Girl to New Rose Hotel director Abel Ferrara has shown he can make stylistically interesting pictures, but unfortunately often substitute style for substance. While in the 1990 offering King of New York there is a bit more interesting story, and certainly a talented cast, the plot takes a back seat to style once again. Still an interesting film, and a tremendous performance by Christopher Walken makes it even more so, despite its shortcomings. Artisan has finally brought this dark, noir-ish film to DVD, though with a non-anamorphic transfer and without compelling extra content.
Frank White (Christopher Walken) is released from prison and picked up by a limo to take him to his swank Plaza Hotel suite. Meantime his drug-dealing hirelings (led by Laurence Fishburne) are busy killing off the competition, to enable Frank's rise to the top of the crime lords in the city. Frank is a ruthless gangster with a heart, as he sees himself financing a local hospital the government can't afford with his drug earnings. Ultimately vigilante police and criminals alike are gunning for Frank, who just might manage to kill all of them off before they get him.
There is no denying the stylish atmosphere of the film. From the lowest crime infested streets to the centers of political power and wealth, the film oozes ambiance. The cinematography and direction captures the essence Ferrara is trying to portray with the gritty streets, graphic violence, and the diverse groups of power brokers in New York, both legal and extra-legal.
Beyond mere style, I have to give kudos to the cast and performances. Particularly I want to talk about Christopher Walken, whose easy-going ruthlessness makes him as unique a villain as I've ever encountered on the screen. Even to call him a villain is a misnomer in this film with far more shades of gray than black or white; the character Frank White wants to be the crime lord of the city so he can give his profits to charity, while the police are vigilantes. He shows effortless charisma as he glides and even dances through the film. There are some strong performances among the supporting cast, and Ferrara was fortunate to get such talent as Laurence Fishburne and Wesley Snipes while they were still on the way up to play smaller roles. Fishburne in particular was strong as the cavalier killer, who seemed to really enjoy his work. Snipes played more of a stereotype in his cop role, seemingly just going along with the flow.
To go with the stylish visual imagery and the strong performances come some moments within the film that are powerful and interesting. I especially liked the scene where three muggers come upon Walken in a subway car. After showing them his gun, he throws them a large bankroll of cash and invites them to come work for him. The muggers run away in what must have been total confusion, and the lack of a follow up to this scene where the muggers meet with him is one of the film's greater lapses.
Lapses like this are the weakest point in the picture. The plotline becomes positively labyrinthine with all the twists and turns and unexplored blind alleys. Interracial relationships play a part in all Ferrara's pictures, and here is no exception as Frank White leads an all-black crew of drug dealers and enforcers. But no real reason is given for the fierce loyalty most of the blacks display for him, and neither does the film explain the betrayals from henchmen who do not exhibit that loyalty. White is welcome talking to city councilmen or at the most posh Manhattan hangouts while the cops treat him like a common hood and roust him at a moment's notice. Much of the plot seems just an excuse to get to the next violent scene, and promising moments never get resolved. The ending almost seems tacked on. I will say, as the testosterone junkie that I am, the violence is graphic and realistically done, and I thought they carried the film pretty well. It simply wasn't enough; the story needed to tie together as well.
The picture quality on this disc ranges from quite good to decidedly average. I was surprised to find Artisan not opting for an anamorphic transfer here, as they've done on nearly all their widescreen efforts. I don't mean to say the picture quality is bad; it's just not that great either. The best parts are the colors and black levels, which are deep. Shadow detail is only fair, but the overall detail is a bit soft. It is difficult to put a label on the fleshtones, as colored lighting is prevalent, shifting faces into shades of blue, amber, and reddish tones. It's all very watchable, but not one I'd be raising a lot of compliments for, especially considering the higher quality of much of Artisan's work.
The soundtrack is likewise adequate, and occasionally quite good. The rap music comes off the best from this Dolby 2.0 track, and has the only real surround aspects. Gunshots have a nice loud bang and sound realistic enough from the standpoint of a film, and the sound effects are spread well enough across the front channels. Dialogue is occasionally difficult to understand, especially when voices are lowered, and you have little choice except to crank up the volume since Artisan still hasn't instituted subtitles.
Extras are only meaningful for those who like trailers. Two TV spots and the trailer are the meat of the extra content, though there is a music video from Schoolly D of a song from the soundtrack, featuring Laurence (then "Larry") Fishburne in the background. There are some very brief notes in a two page booklet inside the case as well. I was surprised by the lack of a commentary track; something extra that Artisan usually provides even on catalog titles.
Ultimately the film is a tome on urban violence shown stylishly and with inventive uses of color. The violence is graphic, there is no moral tone to the picture as villain and police alike are drawn in shades of gray. Still, the performance of Christopher Walken and the lush look to the film itself warrant seeing it at least once. My final recommendation for the disc is of a solid rental, but probably not warranting a purchase by most viewers.
Artisan is fined for the lack of extras, lack of subtitles, and lack of anamorphic transfer on this disc. On the other hand, I am happy this film has another chance at life, and is worth seeing. Abel Ferrara is released to go seek a script that is worthy of his stylish and interesting directorial abilities; and I look forward to something that has substance from him in the future.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 108 Minutes
Release Year: 1990
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* TV Spots
* Music Video
* Production Notes